Trigger Warning: There is mention of suicide in this post. If you are having thoughts of suicide and live in the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or tex “HOME” to 741741. Help is available. You are not alone.
“The word psychosis is used to describe conditions that affect the mind, where there has been some loss of contact with reality. When someone becomes ill in this way, it is called a psychotic episode. During a period of psychosis, a person’s thoughts and perceptions are disturbed, and the individual may have difficulty understanding what is real and what is not.” From the publication “Understanding Psychosis” National Institute on Mental Health.
Psychosis, at least for me, defined my type of mental health challenge. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Type 1 with Psychotic Features. Sounds scary, huh? Well I kid you not, it sure as hell was.
I had my first episode in 1981, when I was a college freshman at General Motors Institute (which became Kettering University in 1998). It occurred during the mid-semester holiday break on Friday, February 13, 1981. This was actually the date that I lost complete touch with reality, was delusional, had auditory hallucinations, and attempted suicide.
What led up to this experience was what I have come to call “a perfect storm” of circumstances: being away from home – untethered from a domineering mother, drug and alcohol use, and significant stress brought on by a rigorous academic program that I was ill equipped for.
During the course of that semester I began to experience profound paranoia, An example was in an organic chemistry class where during each session we had a quiz. One day I cheated on the quiz and I was convinced, in my mind, that the professor knew I had done so.When the class was over I approached him and said, “Dr. (I don’t recall his name), I cheated on the quiz.” to which he replied, “Don’t lose sleep over it.” That did it. I knew he could read my mind because I had been having trouble sleeping (a symptom of bipolar disorder). I freaked out and walked up to my friend Richard and said, “I think I’m cracking up.”
From there, things worsened significantly. I even went to the college’s counseling center and the counselor I spoke with gave me her home number, but by that ill-fated Friday, I was unable to make the call for help,
I have a very vivid memory of that horrible evening. Most of the students in the dorm had left campus for the long President’s Day weekend. But my friend Richard was there. In fact, we were supposed to go to a party in Lansing, but I told him I couldn’t go. While I sat in my small single room alone, my mind began to disintegrate. My first thought was to get rid of the quarter ounce of marijuana that I had in my refrigerator (that was supposed to keep it fresh). So, I went to the bathroom and flushed it down the toilet.
When I returned, I sat in the chair near the door. I recall hearing laughter coming from the student who lived across the hall, Khalil. It was chilling. What I thought would be a good idea would be to play some music. I put on The B-52s Wild Planet lp. The first track on side two is “Devil in My Car.” This was another major trigger. Hearing this caused my to believe that, in fact, I was the devil and that I had to die. I then made my attempt, during which time I had the auditory hallucination of my mother crying, “Don’t do this baby! Don’t do it!” I immediately stopped, went back to my chair and sat, catatonic. I had another thought of going to the river near the schook and drowning myself. This came from the title track to the album, “The River” by Bruce Springsteen, which had been released the previous year. After a while (I really have no idea how long) the residence hall director knocked on my door, entered and said, to the school security guard, “Look at his wrists. We better get him to the hospital.” I was then loaded into a school vehicle and taken to the Flint Hurley Medical Center where a triage nurse took my hand and helped me to sign my name, thereby making it a voluntary admission, otherwise it would require two doctors to discharge me (otherwise known as a “two-pc”). My parents were notified and made the 5-hour trip from Buffalo and brought me home and I was admitted to the Buffalo General Hospital Community Mental Health Center (commonly known as “80 Goodrich”)
Between then and 1986, I had 5 more hospitalizations, including two at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, (BPC), which housed the region’s most severely affected patients, and the Erie County Medical Center (ECMC). I was also hospitalized two more times at ECMC, once in 1989 and the final time in 1995 (after being married to my wife, Suzy, who was pregnant at the time).
The interesting thing that, contrary to my first episode, I had delusions (fixed beliefs not grounded in reality) of being a Messianic figure in all of the rest. I was convinced that I had some kind of power to do things that would be considered omnipotent. I did some pretty wild shit. Including taking a friend’s Doberman Pinscher, “Sensi” on a 7 hour walk through North Buffalo on Thanksgiving Eve without letting them know where I was and even going to Delaware Park where I let the dog run unleashed, much to the consternation of one man who I terrified as a result. In my mind, I could communicate with Sensi telepathically. Yeah, I guess you could say that I was having a psychotic episode.
The episode in 1995 was the real wake up call, though. I had asked my psychiatrist if I could come off the anti-psychotic I was taking, to which she replied, “It’s just a placebo dose.” And BAMI Within a week I was in a full-blown manic episode With us expecting our first child and me being employed at 80 Goodrich (where my office was directly below the first room I was hospitalized in – I cannot make this shit up) I had a lot on the line. I was incredibly fortunate in that Suzy’s father was a retired psychiatrist and academician who, through one of his former students, was able to connect me with a new psychiatrist who was able to get me back on my original medication regimen which enabled me to stabilize my condition.
My experience of believing that I was “superhuman” isn’t unique. I’ve heard many stories of individuals who suffer from psychotic delusions who claim to be “touched by God.” Interestingly, in many indigenous and ancient cultures, individuals who exhibit what would be considered by the Western medical model as psychosis, are looked at as being gifted: Shamans, healers, Moses, Paul on the road to Damascus, and so on. And while I do not consider myself to be in this category, I do not discount the idea of those who have these characteristics to be connected to a “Higher Power.”
I have come to the conclusion, that while I would never, ever, want to go through such an unpredictable experience like those I’ve had years ago, they did afford me with a unique perspective, one in which thank God (no pun intended) I have been able to get through to the other side successfully,